From the look on his face, King Henri IV wasn’t taking the whole portrait business as seriously as he might!!
Colliding with water seems harmless – it’s soft and gives way easily. Usually.
Hit it hard enough though and water becomes as tough and unforgiving as concrete.
An estimated 150,000 people protesting on Irish streets this weekend against water charges suggests something similar has happened with the Irish public.
After bearing over six years of austerity cuts, high unemployment, rocketing emigration, and greatly reduced social services with nary a whimper, finally a reaction.
Who would have expected this to happen because of water charges and not the major issues that came before? And why now when recovery seems to be in the air? Just as the Government seemed to have negotiated treacherous waters unparalleled in the history of the state, what started as a low rumble of dissatisfaction transformed slowly but surely into a full-throated roar of dissent.
Poll numbers for both parties in the Coalition make grim reading – translated into seats after the next election, one estimate suggests Labour might have as few as 2 TDs.
Fine Gael’s Mayor of Drogheda, Kevin Callan, has resigned from the party in protest and Fergus O’Dowd, the (former) minister who oversaw the creation of Irish Water, now opposes his own legislation. It may well not be a coincidence that these two men are in the same constituency as the next election approaches, but apart from this tactical jockeying for position, these events suggest the ramifications of hostility to water charges – and being associated with water charges – may be far-reaching. Puns involving rats and sinking ships have already surfaced.
The car crash aspect of the whole affair continues to become clearer with closer examination and raises the question of why such close scrutiny was deemed unnecessary by the government earlier.
Details of the charges have been vague and slow to appear; rumours and paranoia have outpaced fact and rationality, not difficult when the latter have been in such scarce supply.
A scheme premised on investment in Irish water infrastructure has been revealed as planning to spend a huge share of its funds on Irish Water insiders instead – giving birth to an overstaffed, overpaid, overweeningly arrogant Leviathan with its boot on the parched throats of its ‘customers’.
Every effort to counter this impression has been a dismal failure – a comical carrot interspersed with a flaccid stick, sound and fury signifying nothing.
Except perhaps the end of the Government.
The much quoted Frenchman, Alexis De Tocqueville perhaps sums up this state of affairs in Ireland best; he might have been writing about this very situation, and indeed his words may be the best insight into why such vehement protests are happening now – at the end of the crisis. They will give little comfort to this government:
It is almost never when a state of things is the most detestable that it is smashed, but when, beginning to improve, it permits men to breathe, to reflect, to communicate their thoughts with each other, and to gauge by what they already have the extent of their rights and their grievances. The weight, although less heavy, seems then all the more unbearable.(Letter to Pierre Freslon, 23 September 1853 Selected Letters, p. 296 as cited in Toqueville's Road Map p. 103)
It’s amazing how some things weather so well.
I’ve just finished reading The Boys on the Bus, Timothy Crouse’s landmark book about the press coverage of the 1972 US Presidential election. Written in 1973, the book reads as freshly as if it had been produced last week.
Richard Nixon effectively stonewalled the media and escaped any critical assessment. His much more open opponent, George McGovern, suffered for his accessibility and the relative chaos of his communications strategy.
Other than the candidates, very little has changed since then in how elections have been covered or the tactics used by political campaigns to ‘spin’ and try to control or manipulate the news cycle.
Perhaps social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc – will draw the current era that started in the 60’s to a close. In some ways it already has, if we cast our minds back to Mitt Romney’s close encounter with almost everything being recordable, everywhere, all of the time when he gave his tuppence worth in a Florida hotel in 2012 on 47% of American voters being hooked on entitlements
How relevant will professional journalists be in future political campaigns, in the US and abroad? Or newspapers themselves?
Ironically, Crouse’s book suggests a fairly positive prospect. His central point about 1972 is that journalists were almost completely boxed in by official and officious handlers – as well as by their editors and publishers, and their own unwillingness to rock the boat and be frozen out.
Today such tight shepherding and shaping of what’s seen and heard is no longer assured: every phone can record and broadcast. A balance of sorts has returned between responsibility and authenticity, and a critical examination of candidates to an extent that Crouse bemoans was not possible in the 1972 may again be on the cards.
A useful analogy might be found in the world of TV. By the 70’s it was a tightly managed world, with little of it’s free-wheeling 1950’s origins. Formula and the health of the bottom line dictated as little experiment or deviation from the norm as possible.
But even as things became more regimented, Crouse’s book highlights that the undoing of the inventiveness-deficit was already an idea. He mentions how 28 young cable TV reporters headed by Michael Shamberg had an idea that they believed would revolutionise the small screen:
“The networks, with their economic dependence on mass audiences and mass advertising, would eventually go the way of the mass magazines like Life, he thought. And cable TV – local, decentralised, appealing to small audiences and specialised tastes – would gradually take over. This might not happen until Shamberg was old as Walter Cronkite, but he was in no hurry ” [Chapter VII: Television. Kindle version, location 2761].
Crouse and Shamberg were spectacularly right, and far-sighted, on both scores. Right that cable TV was something worth mentioning and right that it would only come into its own far into the future.
But it did. And cable, HBO and the Sopranos and a host of other programming has reinvigorated TV.
A prediction and half from 1973.
Who knows what social media will do in the same time frame to come?
To TV, politics – and life?
Sometimes we like to shy away from what we really mean, from the ultimate consequences of our actions.
Sometimes we like to focus on the palatable instead of the actual.
To understand only so much, and only so far.
Euphemisms and metaphors cloak events and mask outcomes.
Plainly said and fully understood, many things would or should horrify. If openly stated at the outset, many paths would never be taken, many ends never pursued – except by the mad and the bad.
Complication, simplification, obfuscation, evasion, elision – all the tools necessary for conjuring delusion in ourselves and others.
Sometimes, maybe often in our personal lives, they make things bearable, pare down the ragged, jagged edges of truths that might cut too deeply, allow us to function in spite of our accumulated bruises and abrasions.
Sometimes though they do exactly the opposite – they stand in the way as a barrier between us and what we need to know and acknowledge. When things are too important to be mythologized or glorified.
Watching the tragedy unfold in Gaza, Israel, The West Bank, Palestine, call it as you will – shall we just say the area freshly demarcated everyday in blood and grief, maybe? We all know where we mean – brings the dangers of delusion and self-deception to grim clarity.
‘Defeat’, ‘Security’, ‘Safety’, ‘Victory’, ‘Triumph’, ‘Vanquish’, ‘Battle’, ‘Fight’, ‘Humble’, ‘Remove’, ‘Recover’, ‘Repel’, ‘Compel’, ‘Destroy’, ‘Struggle’, ‘Freedom’, ‘Drive into the Sea’ and so on and so forth. The aims and objectives of uncompromising not-an-inch slogans and battle cries appeal to sentiments like honour and patriotism, bravery and perseverance, staunchness and steadfastness. Age old tradition and validation by history.
But at the heart of all that is opposition, faction, friction and conflict. Buried within the claims is a noxious sense of superiority, of specialness: we are better than you. We are a unique flower of humanity; you are a worthless weed choking our land.
We can suffer more, last longer, try harder, kill better. We are better. More deserving. This should be ours. This will be ours. You are nothing. Not deserving. Not worthy. Not human. Dregs. Dust. To be swept away. Buried.
Not very pleasant when put that way, is it?
So how about we frame things in Israel/Palestine in honest stark terms?
Option one: both sides live in peace. Simple. [Ok, not so simple but wait till we see the other option]
Option two: one side wins. Not so simple. Both Palestinians and Israelis have a long history of resistance and survival in the bleakest situations.
So, if ‘winning’, really winning, for all and for ever, achieving a situation where no one disputes the outcome or the new dispensation, not once, not ever, is the aim, how does that happen?
Israel has had many military victories, many crushing defeats of its enemies in the last 60 years. But here it is, still today after all that long sequence of effort and energy, in Gaza. Troubled, upset, rattled, riled and angry. No peace, and no prospect of peace. Those pesky Palestinians just won’t give up, recognise reality and quit.
On the other side, Israel has faced down everything sent against it for sixty years. For two thousand years and longer, Jewish people have withstood every type of moral and physical violence intended to crush them and wipe from the earth. If by some turn of events in future, Palestinians came to control all the old British mandate territory, some eight million Israelis would be every bit as adamant in resistance as Palestinians are today. Those pesky Israelis just wouldn’t give up, recognise reality and quit.
So what’s left? Military victory, and overwhelming dominance is still vulnerable and susceptible to the actions of the ‘defeated’ population. Wishing them away or thinking they can be cowed permanently like animals, beaten and broken into dazed compliance, is as brutally cruel as it is fruitlessly fantastic. No one has a superiority of the human spirit.
What to do? Well if a residual hostile population is the problem, the ultimate and only viable answer is of course not to have any.
Death or expulsion. Ethnic cleansing.
So, though both sides and all the on-looking interested parties would and never will put things in this formulation, the clear concise options for a permanent settlement boil down to peace or genocide.
I don’t believe that people on either side if presented with the situation in these cold terms would choose mass slaughter……
So let’s get on with peace?
A relatively little known fact from the history of the Second World War is that the French army actually had more, and better, tanks at the outbreak of hostilities in 1940 than the Wehrmacht.
So how did things go so disastrously wrong?
France’s generals planned for the last war rather than the next battle. They arranged their forces to deal with 1914 all over again.
German blitzkrieg tactics were nothing like what was expected – they blithely swarmed around blocking obstacles placed in their way.
France’s best military resources could offer no effective resistance, despite being enviably strong on paper and, apparently, shrewdly deployed. Poor communication and coordination with their British and Belgian allies exacerbated the problems.
It was all over in six weeks.
Watching this week’s government reshuffle pan out brings some of the same questions to mind.
Many of the junior ministerial promotions (and demotions) seem to be aimed at tamping down potential Sinn Fein breakthroughs.
In the short term this has annoyed Irish language speakers unhappy with the new Gaeltacht minister, Joe McHugh, and given rise to some internal grumbling in Fine Gael over a perceived failure to promote more female ministers.
The question now is how well will this defensive redeployment work? Will a ministerial Maginot Line stem the Sinn Fein tide?
Or come the next election, will it transpire that the Coalition’s political strategists have planned for the last election?
And all be for naught?
Well before the last count had been completed in the Irish local and European elections it was obvious we were witnessing a major sea change in Irish politics. The difficult question though is what exactly is that change and what does it mean for the future?
Sinn Fein’s gains are the biggest story of the election and, at first glance, perhaps appear the easiest to analyse, as well as the easiest to project as regards what their success will mean in the longer term. With a dramatic increase nationwide in the number of local councillors to c. 150 and an MEP elected easily in each Euro constituency, their long-expected big breakthrough has arrived.
However, this undoubted success is not without complications and contradictions.
Short term, such a big influx of inexperienced politicians will quickly have to learn the ropes to fulfil the expectations underpinning their election. The perceived success or otherwise of Sinn Fein councillors will inevitably impact on the prospects for the party in the next general election. Given that contest will be relatively soon, less than two years at the longest, it leaves little time for much in the way of signature achievements at local level. Equally, in initiating and implementing policy Sinn Fein will be very much at the mercy of other parties.
The most serious problems are long term. Much of Sinn Fein’s vote at these elections has been attracted by their anti-austerity stance – opposition to water charges, other cutbacks and the legacy of the bank bailout; essentially a left-wing platform. However an important, indeed the most important, plank in Sinn Fein’s agenda as an All-Ireland party is working to end partition and bring about Irish unity. It’s why Sinn Fein exists as a party. The big conundrum though is how many southern voters actually have much interest in this question, especially the drove of new supporters who cast their ballots last week.
It’s certainly not a major magnet for voters, most of whom care little for Northern Ireland, but how off-putting might it be in future if Sinn Fein make it a practical priority in government? People may be ready to indulge the odd ritualistic mention of the Peace Process and the North, but ultimately after nearly a century of separation the population of the Republic has little appetite for much more than that – especially if it comes at a cost . This lack of focus on what happens in Northern Ireland has spared Sinn Fein from close scrutiny of the polices it implements there, and also meant that Gerry Adams’ arrest had very little effect down south.
Ironically then partition has been an important factor in Sinn Fein’s current success in the Republic – a success that might shortly place it in a position to seek an end to partition. How Sinn Fein deals with the contradiction will determine its future – in southern politics and as a party. Gerry Adams is 65 and close to retirement, as is Martin McGuinness. Will new younger southern-focused leaders such as Mary Lou McDonald or Pearse Doherty, seasoned in viewing the political landscape from the Dail, really seek to prioritise an activist ‘United Ireland’ policy that is anathema to southern voters according to opinion polls? Or will they subtly reorientate the party’s focus? And if they do, will Sinn Fein face another moment of crisis as in the late 1960s, when a similar situation of a left-leaning Dublin leadership distant from Belfast issues led to a northern breakaway? Success in 2014 then may be a poisoned chalice.
Relative success was also enjoyed by Fianna Fail – not a triumph along Sinn Fein lines, but survival as a party. They retained almost exactly the same share of the vote, c.25%, as at the last local elections in 2009 and come out of these elections with the largest numbers of councillors. Having faced the wrath of the Irish electorate three years ago and diced with annihilation these results can be seen as representing a form of victory. Compared to the fond remembered days of dominating elections with 40% of the vote and forming single party governments, the new normal for Fianna Fail is a big come down though. The question that they and their supporters have to face is what happens to them next?
Current polls put Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein as likely to receive roughly 20% of the vote in the next election, with Independent/Others making up the rest. Fianna Fail are likely to fall behind Sinn Fein in seat numbers given the cut in the number of TDs overall to 158, Fianna Fail’s notorious lack of success in Dublin and the party’s decidedly transfer unfriendly status.
Numerous permutations for coalition governments are possible but none seem viable without Fianna Fail participation. Paradoxically that involvement could well spell not the rejuvenation but the obliteration of the party.
A Sinn Fein/Fianna Fail alliance is apparently favoured by 40-50% of Fianna Fail, as based on figures cited on RTE Radio, and opposed by roughly the same number. At least a portion of those opposed would be likely to leave the party rather than cooperate on the basis of past history and personal attitudes to Sinn Fein. In that scenario a smaller remnant Fianna Fail organisation might be able to continue in existence, though the possibility if not probability of eventual absorption may be most likely.
On the other hand, the alternative grand coalition of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, with Fine Gael approximately twice and potentially treble the size of Fianna Fail is an option popular with Fine Gael members but apparently unpalatable with a large majority of the Fianna Fail organisation. The grave worry with this scenario is not the difference between the parties but the fact that they are to all intents and purposes almost identical – once the two groups coalesce in coalition, the smaller party will cease to exist, cannibalised by Fine Gael after 90 years of Civil War electoral politics.
So, in either scenario the future for Fianna Fail, barring a miracle, is bleak.
Which brings us to the ostensible losers of this weeks elections, Fine Gael and Labour. Beyond these bad drubbings for both parties, the future actually seems rather bright.
Certainly, contrary to the gloom and doom surrounding the Labour party, so profoundly devastating as to bring about a leadership change, their days do not appear to be numbered. The party’s identity does require a makeover to re-establish its left-wing credentials but the combination of a growing left vote in Ireland and the final emergence of European-style left-right politics presents a unique opportunity notwithstanding current adversity.
Unsavoury as Labour may be to other groups of the broad left such as the Socialist Party, People Before Profit and the Anti Austerity Alliance, even in a much reduced state it remains a far larger and better organised party – and seems very much certain to retain those advantages. Much then depends on what if any relationship develops between Sinn Fein, Labour, the smaller left parties and like-minded Independents if the electorate cast a majority of votes for this broad grouping. If no understanding can be reached the mantel passes to Fine Gael.
Fine Gael of all parties appears the most securely established, the most stable in policy and the most certain of its own identity. Once the current Reform Alliance rebels make their decision to rejoin or form their own party, there appears to be little in the way of other divisive fissures lingering in the ranks. On that basis Fine Gael would appear to be the standard bearers for the centre-right as the expected new structure of Irish politics develops. Mirroring divisions on the left, they may perhaps face some competition from new smaller groupings on the right – a more conservative Catholic organisation and/or a more economically radical party – though these are, on the basis of polls and these election results, likely to be quite minor groupings.
The key group and most intriguing outcome of all in the elections is the ongoing rise of the Independents – collectively they hold the greatest number of seats on councils nationwide. Polls also suggest they will have a hugely successful outcome at the next general election, somewhere in the region of 20%. Whoever can successfully woo and maintain an understanding with the greatest number of these Independents will be in pole position when it comes to forming a government after the next election.
Overall then the parties that have done worst in these elections, Labour and Fine Gael, may ironically have the most secure futures in a radically altering political environment. Sinn Fein, the biggest winners, face potential internal re-organisational challenges and a level of dissonance with their southern voters’ priorities and expectations. Fianna Fail may face the greatest challenge of all, with their very existence at stake unless they can devise a course to a safe harbour of purpose and policy in the evolving new world of Irish politics. Independents seem set to determine the balance of power and assume a centrality in government never before seen in Ireland.
If one thing is certain, it’s that there are interesting times ahead for watchers of Irish politics!